We know Earth’s materials have been instantiated over vast periods of time, but still, it is an incomprehensible proposition to the human mind, which struggles to get beyond the length of one lifetime. Many of the raw materials involved in a sculptor’s repertoire, like marble, bronze, or porcelain, result from these forces which are beyond the ken of most humans. The Earth is a giant rock with a dynamo in its core and a wobbly orbit in space—now apparently exacerbated by human activity. But sculpture made by human hands from Earth’s raw elements can last thousands of years longer than any of us.

As we better understand the physical processes and forms embedded in our planet, we develop knowhow. This enables our abilities and capacity for understanding. Considering an object engenders a synthesis in perception, neurochemical channels have been actuated when we see something that makes physical sense to us. The sculpture in this exhibition results from the forces of an individual transferred through praxis, involving tools applied to a material, to create form. These expired but embedded activities can register later to someone looking at the resulting object. Sculpture can be a representation of the way things work, a physical logic of material contingencies.

André Lapointe works with raw materials from the Earth: marble, copper, iron, clay. His carved stone and fired clay artworks are made using simple formal strategies like stacking and layering. Many of his works resound with the vibrations of early modern sculpture. The three registers favoured by Constantin Brancusi are used by Lapointe to create some endearing and humorous objects. This practice of using different visual registers stacked one upon another is an ancient formatting device, a rebus-like arrangement of signs resonant with the way spoken language was initially coded and written. The artist’s early works exhibited here, “Volcano” and “Study for a Volcano,” explore this formatting by playing with the base. The works use the way these geologic features of Earth’s crust have distinct regions: smoke, mountain, and surrounding land. Conceptually these works embody symbolic imagery to contemplate force in a narrative sense. The allusion is to forces of vulcanization within the planet. The marks of the sculptor’s chisel remain on the surfaces of the globules of stone oozing from each volcano’s chimney, the smoke becomes an index not only of fire, but also of the force of the artist’s hammer. I find humour in this comparison of human effort with volcanic force.

Shell Volcano (1989), limestone and wood. Photo: John Leroux

A series of the artist’s photographs included here are an exploration of material processes using what is at hand. In one, he has arranged pine tree branches into a geometric shape on the ground that frames sunlight reflecting on snow.

Lune de Niege (2005), maple tree and snow. Photo courtesy of the artist.

These works are based on simple conceptual strategies, aligned with other artists using natural materials in similar ways, but for Lapointe the practice takes on a sense of humour and wonder. Erable troue, 2004, captures an oak tree whose yellowing leaves hang on longer and contrast with the bare trees nearby, creating a yellow halo glowing within its branches. In another, he has photographed what looks like a giant moon-like snowball at the core of the now leafless oak tree, titled Lune de neige, 2005.

Sept Vagues (2022), limestone. Photo: John Leroux

Waves are a most unusual subject for a stone carver. Lapointe’s verge on abstraction, I only arrived at their subject slowly. When I did get there, I immediately thought of Hokusai whose iconic 2-D waves are etched in my mind. The waves here are 12” to 24” in length and carved in dark marble. They sit together on a thin base painted white. Lapointe has used the difference between the raw and polished stone to great effect in representing the waves he illustrates here. The lines carved into the marble are symbolic rather than naturalistic possessing an archaism that sculptors have resorted to for millennia. The artist transforms materials in ways that are symbolic of how form and pattern are created by forces and processes intrinsic to Earth. He has been inhabiting or partnering with forces that create and act upon the Earth’s materials.

Sept Vagues (2022), limestone. Photo: John Leroux

In the exhibition, which is a kind of career survey, the four classical categories of Earth’s elements (air, water, fire, earth) are considered. Earth is paired with time in the form of slabs of salt continuously crystalizing in an open steel vitrine, perhaps a nod to Robert Smithson whose own obsession with art resulted in his untimely death. Smithson also worked with time to encourage salt crystallization on his Spiral Jetty in Great Salt Lake. Here, Lapointe’s vitrine is reminiscent of Smithson’s “Non-sites” and the way he presented chunks of geology in a gallery setting. Salt of the Earth or so the saying goes.

Traversing this gallery from one work to another the partnership with time becomes evident, each group is a segment of the artist’s time as marked by his sculpture. My experience moving through this space is of a past held deep within the history of sculpture. I think of Paleolithic cave carvings and then the architecture and statuary of ancient temples and the medieval “Stations of the Cross.” Humanity has a long experience with sculpture beginning with the use of flint chisels on mammoth tusk and softer rock. Millennia later stone carvers often lived their lives in cathedrals that took decades if not centuries to complete. Made by the forces of an individual wrought upon a material with whatever technology is available, sculpture can be an artifact with a deep history—an index, a symbol, an icon.